Improvements to labeling on packaged foods and beverages, such as uniform portion size standards, are vital if consumers are to be given correct nutritional information, claims the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
The call comes as both food industry and nutrition professionals have begun to take a closer look at the importance of portion size in forming eating habits. The FDA is currently reviewing modifications such as more prominent calorie displays and simpler standards for serving sizes.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) believes that now is the time to make such changes.
"During the past decade, the Nutrition Facts Panel has become an easily recognized source of information among consumers," said GMA senior director of nutrition and regulatory policy Alison Kretser.
"However, because of the current design, consumers do not always link caloric content to the serving size listed. Some simple changes to the Nutrition Facts Panel could help consumers make smarter dietary choices."
Indeed, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) guidelines, which USDA secretary Ann Veneman claimed were designed to "address the epidemic of overweight and obesity," specifically targeted portion size as a key determinant in what people eat. The DOAC decided that portion control was of such concern that it devised a new pyramid model using the leanest form of every food product category.
"The US has forgotten what an average serving size is," said Connie Weaver, professor of foods / nutrition at Purdue University and a member of the USDA panel involved in drawing up the new dietary guidelines earlier this year. Speaking earlier this year at IFT conference in New Orleans, she said that adopting proper eating patterns could make all the difference.
The GMA believes that label plays a vital role in achieving this. In comments submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the GMA recommended that FDA increase and bold the font size of both serving size and calories, and eliminate the line that visually separates these two interdependent pieces of information.
GMA also suggested that FDA allow companies to add a footnote directing consumers to www.Pyramid.gov for personalized nutrition information.
GMA suggested two design options for single serve packages, including a dual column format that would list nutrition information per serving and per package. For products with limited labeling space, companies could instead add a single line declaring "Calories Per Container."
Both options would allow companies to remind consumers about the appropriate serving size while providing them with simplified information about caloric content for the entire package.
"Serving sizes listed in the Nutrition Facts Panel should reflect the government's nutrition recommendations in the authoritative 2005 Dietary Guidelines and the new MyPyramid," said Kretser. "However, for packaged foods and beverages that could be consumed during a single eating occasion, companies should have the flexibility of listing the amount of calories and nutrients for the entire package as well as per serving."
Any change would not come cheap. If the FDA adopts the trade association's suggestions, the cost to food and beverage companies likely would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The FDA estimated that a change to the nutrition label in 2003 cost the food industry $140 million to $250 million.
Still, the GMA believes that the suggestions made to the FDA show that the food industry is taking its responsibility to consumer welfare seriously.
"Nutrition is a serious issue, and labeling changes are just one of the ways in which we can make difference," said Kretser. "As the FDA considers GMA's recommendations, the food and beverage industry will continue to respond to consumers' concerns by introducing new products with improved nutritional profiles, fewer calories and more convenient single-serve packaging."